The Bounces

Jonathan Willis
March 17 2009 03:10PM

Ovechkin

Alexander Ovechkin is probably the most popular player with the fans in the National Hockey League. He’s certainly it’s most electrifying figure -- for all of the league’s efforts to put forward Sidney Crosby as the face of the game it is Ovechkin, a flashier, more physically imposing player with some genuine charisma who has claimed that role. He’s a player who most everyone who follows the league has seen play at least once, and a player that we’re all familiar with. Hence, he’s a perfect example for the point I’m going to make a little further down.

Greg Wyshynski (of Yahoo’s Puck Daddy blog) is one of the best in the business – and his influence is such that The Hockey News included him in their annual 100 People of Power and Influence in Hockey list. J.P. of Jaspers Rink is one of the most prominent Capitals bloggers out there and a sane observer of the game. Both feel that Ovechkin is in a slump right now. Here’s the quote featured in both articles:

But do you want to know what is bad? Over that 12-game span mentioned above, AO has a minus-8 rating (including back-to-back minus-2's in his last two games), and hasn't had a plus rating in a single game. Not one. And his five even strength points are just two more than Shaone Morrisonn has over that same stretch.

Alex Ovechkin, it seems, is bored. Bored enough to take shifts off. Bored enough to not backcheck on every play as if the season depended on it... which may be fine, because the season doesn't depend on it. Yet.

Soon enough, though, one bad shift might be the difference between advancing a round in the playoffs and going home disappointed. Again. But for now, a subpar effort isn't terribly costly, and so they happen.

I’m fairly sure that the picture isn’t nearly as bleak as J.P. paints it. For starters, conventional plus-minus rather stupidly includes short-handed goals against, which means that of Ovechkin’s -8 rating, three of those minuses didn’t come at even-strength but rather came as shorthanded goals against. The effect of the inclusion of short-handed goals in plus/minus is to punish offensive players and reward penalty-killers – and it unfairly makes some good offensive players seem worse defensively and some good defensive players seem better because they kill penalties.

In any case, I reviewed those three short-handed goals. The first was by Todd White of Atlanta. The puck was cleared by the Thrashers defnder, and Washington’s two pointmen (Ovechkin and Mike Green) raced back to their zone with Ilya Kovalchuk of Atlanta chasing the puck. Green overskated Kovalchuk, so Ovechkin veered in to help recover the puck. Kovalchuk passed it by Ovechkin over to Todd White, who had outraced three Washington forwards back to the Capitals zone and was alone in the slot, and White scored. You might question Ovechkin’s defensive awareness, but given that Alexander Semin was ahead of every Thrasher when the puck was cleared, he has every reason to expect that the first player back would be his teammate.

Matt Cullen scored the second short-handed goal against, on a two-on-two play where Sergei Fedorov back-checked hard to take out his man and Cullen stepped by Mike Green and scored. Ovechkin had been playing the left point and had tried to keep the puck in, which caused the two-on-two break, but with two guys in good position to get back, isn’t it the right decision to try and hold the puck in on the powerplay?

The third goal was scored by Patrick Eaves. Here, Ovechkin was covering the slot, and Eaves went around to the far left of the net blowing by Niklas Backstrom and scoring from a tough angle. The fault for this goal against rests, not on Ovechkin, but on Backstrom who was badly outplayed by Eaves.

That still leaves Ovechkin as -5 at even-strength over those twelve games. Eight goals were scored for with Ovechkin on the ice and thirteen were scored against. However, a quick look at Vic Ferrari’s Time On Ice tool, which strips information of NHL play-by-play sheets, gives us a more complete view. Here are the numbers:

  • Goals For/Against: 8/13 (-5)
  • Shots For/Against: 121/107 (+14)
  • Missed Shots For/Against: 72/34 (+38)
  • Blocked Shots For/Against: 69/47 (+22)
  • Shot Attempts For/Against: 262/188 (+74)

In other words, despite being outscored 13-8 with Ovechkin on the ice at even-strength, Washington had fired 74 more shots at their opposition’s net than they allowed. A bunch of those shots missed the net and others were blocked, which helps make the shots for and against closer to even, with Washington only outshooting the opposition 121 to 107. None of that has anything to do with being bored or lazy backchecking – it’s just that more of Washington’s shots were blocked or missed than the opposition’s.

As for the rest of the discrepancy, take a quick look at the save percentage of Washington’s goalies and the opposition’s goalies while Ovechkin was on the ice during that span:

  • Washington: .879 SV%
  • Opposition: .931 SV%

Maybe Ovechkin isn’t backchecking like he should. For all I know, he is bored. But those things almost certainly aren’t connected to why Alexander Ovechkin has a -8 rating over his past 12 games. Some of it is related to the stupidity of the statistic (which includes not only short-handed goals but also empty-netters), but the rest of it is because Washington’s shots were missing the net, getting blocked, or just plain getting saved at a much higher rate than that of the opposition.

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Jonathan Willis is Managing Editor of the Nation Network. He also currently writes for the Edmonton Journal's Cult of Hockey, Grantland, and Hockey Prospectus. His work has appeared at theScore, ESPN and Puck Daddy. He was previously founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue. Contact him at jonathan (dot) willis (at) live (dot) ca.
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#1 The Towel Boy
March 17 2009, 03:20PM
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I love Ovechkin.

...There. I said it.

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#2 OvenChicken8
March 17 2009, 03:21PM
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I heart Ovechkin. He really curves my blade.

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#3 Ender
March 17 2009, 03:29PM
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but the rest of it is because Washington’s shots were missing the net, getting blocked, or just plain getting saved at a much higher rate than that of the opposition.

Isn't your conclusion jumping the gun a bit here? I mean, it's also entirely possible that the whole team/line is paying worse. SV% tends to reflect on the goalie, but it can be a D stat as well. Now, I haven't seen the games (and by the sound of it, neither have you), but isn't it just as likely that it isn't bad luck?

Think of it this way. Ovechkin is bored, and isn't trying as hard. He's taking shots that are "good enough" instead of great. Wouldn't that likely lead to more blocked, missed, or even saved shots? I mean, from an offensive POV, a goalie can have a 1.000 SV% if you keep shooting at his chest.

Sorry Jonathan, but I think this is what separates stats from "seen him good." By the stats, you argue it's luck, but it's entirely possible that watching the game would indicate boredom and give some indication as to why those shots aren't going in. If you disconnect the two you can make some interesting observations in both directions while having little to no idea how accurate they are in reality. PS. Not saying you're outright wrong - just that your conclusion doesn't necessarily follow from your argument.

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#4 Jonathan Willis
March 17 2009, 03:35PM
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@ Ender:

I like it when you comment, Ender. Mostly because you present counter-arguments that make sense.

On the other hand, if Ovechkin was putting in less than a full effort, you'd expect that it would manifest itself not just as lower quality shots but as less shots period - because he isn't getting to spots where he takes shots, etc. Similarly, if his defensive play had fallen off a ledge due to indifference, you'd expect the opposition to have more shots too, wouldn't you?

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#5 smytty777
March 17 2009, 03:41PM
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Ender wrote:

it’s entirely possible that watching the game would indicate boredom and give some indication as to why those shots aren’t going in.

I have admittedly only watched a few of the last couple of Washington games, but I can tell you that based on that observation Washington fires the puck from absolutely every angle. "Low percentage shots" is what my hockey coach would call them.

I'm all for teams shooting as much as possible and think the Oilers should shoot more, but when you are wristing it at the net from the corner, it's not going in 99.9% of the time. And it's not "unlucky" that you are not scoring from there, its lucky if you ever do.

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#6 Ender
March 17 2009, 03:47PM
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@Jonathan

Expect? Sure. That said, I know when I'm playing rec hockey and I'm tired and/or lazy I tend to just throw the puck in the general direction of the net from the outside. In fact, I'm likely to take more shots, but crappier shots. Ovechkin's miles may vary.

As far as D goes, that's a better argument. However, being a forward, he's not likely to alter the shot totals drastically no matter how poorly he's playing. All he needs to do is to push the players a bit to the outside, and then it's not his problem after they pass it. One can play lazy defense from the top - it's not a huge deal.

That said, if you play lazy D that way, the shots that get through are likely to be much better shots, and you'd expect the SV% of the goalie to go down because of it. More passes from the blueline to the slot, for example. Or how about this? You're hemmed in your zone for less time at a time because the first or second shot goes in. No 5-shot zone possessions. Shots don't go up because there aren't as many rebounds because the puck is already in the net.

Effectively, there are mitigating circumstances that I'd need to see the games to judge. It really could go either way.

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#7 Joey Moss
March 17 2009, 03:48PM
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I am really sick of Cindy Crosby.

You see all these stupid commercials with either rabid Crosby fans (I know none) or these heartfelt Tim Hortons moments that are meant to feel all gushy inside when you see CrosBars face.

I have a feeling this is going to backfire on the NHL in a big way. No one likes sports stars shoved down their throat, particularly ones so god-damn boring to watch both on and off the ice. Why isn't the NHL promoting someone with a shred of personality as the face of the game? This boring Newfie does nothing to bolster my interest in the game, or the Pengiuns.

More Ovechkin, Less Crosby Please.

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#8 Dennis
March 17 2009, 03:49PM
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I hardly ever do this but I was at my sister's place on Sunday and I picked apart the Sat paper and just took out the sports section. The crowd jewel was the counting stats for all the teams and that used to be a big deal years ago.

So, I was looking at all the stats and just trying to pick out who had the most EV or non PP goals and by the old timey metric, OV was just +11.

I thought that was pretty odd.

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#9 Jonathan Willis
March 17 2009, 03:51PM
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@ smytty777:

Washington's shot-happy alright, and Ovechkin in particular. On the other hand, he's always like that, and it hasn't hurt his point totals. In a similar vein, the goalie behind him isn't always putting up an .879 SV% either.

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#10 Jonathan Willis
March 17 2009, 03:53PM
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@ Ender:

I didn't see the games, but I did watch the goal highlights on NHL.com for when Ovechkin was on the ice over that span - I just didn't feel like doing play-by-play on all thirteen.

Suffice to say, Ovechkin's boredom isn't the leading cause of goals against.

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#11 smytty777
March 17 2009, 04:15PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

@ smytty777: In a similar vein, the goalie behind him isn’t always putting up an .879 SV% either.

I guess my point is that Washington's SV% is generally always going to be lower than its opposition, unless they are facing a team with a similar "shoot from everywhere" mentality. If you are taking low percentage shots, the goalie is going to stop the majority of them.

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#12 Ender
March 17 2009, 04:27PM
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@Jonathan

I'll take your word for it. Just thought it was worth pointing out that there were other scenarios that might be easily hidden by the numbers. We take the stats to mean a certain thing, but given the nature of the game there are almost always a half dozen reasons why those numbers could be coming up that way in any particular case.

Numbers are dangerous.

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#13 Jonathan Willis
March 17 2009, 05:22PM
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Ender wrote:

Numbers are dangerous.

Particularly without context, which I suppose was one of the points I was making. Just because a guy is sitting at -8 doesn't mean he's not backchecking - it's just that straight GF/GA doesn't always show enough of the picture.

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#14 Kyle
March 18 2009, 02:08PM
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For starters, conventional plus-minus rather stupidly includes short-handed goals against, which means that of Ovechkin’s -8 rating, three of those minuses didn’t come at even-strength but rather came as shorthanded goals against. Jonathon, correct me if I'm wrong but are you saying that players on the PK get a minus when they are scored against while the players on the PP who score receive a plus when they score on the PP? If so I'm about 99% sure you're incorrect. As I understand it +/- is only awarded at even strength or if a SH goal is scored by the SH team (SH goal FOR, not AGAINST.) Correct me if I either misinterpreted you or if I'm just flat out wrong.

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#15 Jonathan Willis
March 18 2009, 11:28PM
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@ Kyle:

No Kyle, I'm sorry I wasn't clearer. You have half the picture - a penalty-killer is awared a + for a short-handed goal for, but in addition to that the players on the powerplay that had the short-handed goal against are given a minus.

3 of Ovechkin's 8 minuses in this stretch came when his powerplay was scored on by opposition penalty killers.

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#16 Kyle
March 19 2009, 12:06AM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

@ Kyle: No Kyle, I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer. You have half the picture - a penalty-killer is awared a + for a short-handed goal for, but in addition to that the players on the powerplay that had the short-handed goal against are given a minus. 3 of Ovechkin’s 8 minuses in this stretch came when his powerplay was scored on by opposition penalty killers.

Ok, yes I knew that was true, I was just confused a bit, i thought maybe you were implying Ovechkin was on the PK and got scored on.

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